In the interest of history

Tunheim reviews JFK death at Law Day event

U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim speaks about the Kennedy Assassination during Thursday’s Law Day event at the Lowell Inn. Tunheim was chairman of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board that examined records related to JFK’s 1963 shooting death. (Gazette staff photo by Avery Cropp)
U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim speaks about the Kennedy Assassination during Thursday’s Law Day event at the Lowell Inn. Tunheim was chairman of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board that examined records related to JFK’s 1963 shooting death. (Gazette staff photo by Avery Cropp)

The November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains one of America’s most debated and discussed historic events. What members of the local Lions and Rotary International clubs learned at their annual Law Day event Thursday is that history is sometimes best left open to interpretation with the facts.

U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim, the featured speaker at Thursday’s event at the Lowell Inn Banquet Center in Stillwater, was chairman of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board for four years. The board was established in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush and continued by President Bill Clinton. The board was created as an independent agency to re-examine for release JFK assassination-related records that federal agencies still regarded as too sensitive to open to the public. The board was not to come to conclusions, but simply declassify the records.

“As you and I all know there is some fairly broad disagreement about who is responsible for what happened that day. Our job was to open records to the public and let them decide for themselves what happened in the days after the assassination.” Tunheim told his audience. “We’ve all heard the conspiracy theories, and I feel that the secrecy at the time of the assassination did have an impact on those.”

Tunheim gave a brief overview of the events of Nov. 22, 1963, with supplemental video that included footage of the Kennedys landing at Dallas Love Field, the famous Zapruder film that captures JFK’s assassination and news coverage of the aftermath of the assassination, as well as the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Tunheim said the board went through millions of documents including CIA and FBI records, foreign organization records, police reports, records from New Orleans and information from the Clay Shaw case, the only man brought to trial and acquitted of Kennedy’s assassination. The collection, which includes 6 million pages, can be found at the National Archives.

“We did run into conflict with quite a number of organizations. The process was set up with an appeal and could be challenged by the organization.” Tunheim said. “What we didn’t declassify at the time were documents related to protection of the President.”

Tunheim added that the board did go through KGB files that had been collected on Lee Harvey Oswald when he defected to old Soviet Union after being discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps.

“The KGB had records of Oswald that were eight feet high. They had kept a close eye on him, making sure he wasn’t a trouble maker. In the roof of his apartment that he got when he found a job in Minsk, there were peepholes on the roof and a Russian woman in the attic, so we have a pretty complete record of his life for the two-and-a-half years he spent there.” Tunheim said.

Tunheim said Oswald was the prime suspect from the beginning of the investigation.
“His motivation is, I think he thought he was supposed to be someone famous in his own mind,  and if he did this he would be viewed with great glory in the Soviet Union and Cuba,” Tunheim said. “He was a really mixed-up 24-year-old who was on a parade route that had changed to go near his workplace.”

Tunheim said the board was given the opportunity to look at the Warren Commission report that ruled there was one shooter, no proof could be found that organized crime was involved, and there were only three bullets used.

Tunheim said the FBI was not involved in the investigation because at the time, shooting the president was not a federal crime. He added that the number of shots going from three to six and then three again dealt with skipping tapes, and that Oswald’s shooter, Jack Ruby, had minimal ties to organized crime though it remains unknown who paid for his lawyers during trial.

“Records of Ruby’s conversations with his lawyer have never been released because of attorney-client privilege,” Tunheim said. “In the interest of history though, I think they should be.”